By Michael Swain, Executive Director of FOR SA

Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), together with the entire mainline religious community, has soundly condemned the abuses perpetrated in the name of religion.  No harmful or criminal act can be justified in the name of “freedom of religion”.  We have repeatedly communicated to the CRL Rights Commission (CRL) that we are willing to work together to find workable, long term solutions to the issues they have identified. However, the submissions and proposed solutions presented to the CRL by ourselves and the vast majority of the religious community, have fallen on deaf ears.

Although the CRL Report highlighted issues that are of deep concern to the whole religious community of South Africa – particularly to the Church, since the worst perpetrators self-identify as “pastors” or “prophets” – the CRL has refused to engage the major faith groups and denominations in constructive debate or discussions to find acceptable solutions.  Instead, they have chosen to sensationalise the handful of abuses which the media profiled, to imply that all “religious practitioners” are at least potentially guilty of exploiting their congregations.  The CRL sees congregants as the constituency it must defend, since they consider them to be generally gullible and incapable of realising that they are being exploited.  Their actions seem to have been fueled by a study which the CRL commissioned from UNISA, which surveyed 905 congregants of churches in Gauteng (only!).  From this study, the CRL Chairlady concluded that “if there is any capture that has happened, it is the capture of the minds of the congregants”, a statement which is concerning close to the Marxist view that “religion is the opium of the masses”.

From the beginning, the CRL has adopted a high-handed and highly adversarial approach, kicking off its investigation by issuing subpoenas to a random sample of 85 religious leaders and traditional leaders.   The initial reason given for this investigation, was to examine “the commercialization of religion” and at no stage were any of this initial group informed or consulted on the CRL’s proposal to license (and thereby control) all religion in South Africa.  These recommendations were first included in the CRL’s Preliminary Report, for which they initially allowed three (3) weeks for comment and only extended by a month following a massive outcry by the religious community.  However, it is evident that the CRL has ignored all the concerns, objections and alternative solutions proposed by organizations and denominations representing millions of South Africans.  They made no material changes to their Final Report, which has already been presented to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA).

The net result is that the CRL – and by implication the Government – are on a collision course of conflict with the religious community.  Commenting on the CRL’s Final Report, Bishop Zipho Siwa – presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) and President of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) – has said that “in whatever ‘self-regulatory’ terms this is couched, these regulatory bodies will be state-appointed, state-funded and state-controlled. As a result, the proposed legislation effectively amounts to state regulation of religion.” Stephen Brislin, Archbishop of Cape Town and President of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) said that “ a recommendation that new laws be introduced to enforce registration of pastors and ministers is overkill and a response that one would expect more from a totalitarian state than a constitutional democracy”.  Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, SACC General Secretary, said that “the mechanisms for implementation will most definitely need more engagement time, which we believe should be afforded ahead of any legislative conclusions.”

FOR SA is firmly of the same opinion.  The CRL’s proposal will completely overturn the current relationship between the State and the religious community of South Africa, which is a fundamental erosion of our constitutional rights to enjoy freedom of religion and freedom of assembly.  It is therefore unconstitutional and also unnecessary, particularly as there are already existing laws which deal with all the issues of abuse that the CRL have identified.  We therefore advocate that the CRL’s Final Report should either be withdrawn or rejected by the COGTA Portfolio Committee.  Thereafter, a national and broadly inclusive process should be initiated to strengthen the accountability of both Government and the religious community, which should include better law enforcement and the formulation of a “Code of Ethics” that all can voluntarily ascribe to and which would amount to true self-regulation of religion.

It is absolutely crucial that religious communities make their voices heard on this issue to COGTA, who have invited such representations.  Please make sure to send same to the COGTA Portfolio Committee by no later than 21 AUGUST 2017:

Shereen Cassiem
Mzameni Mdakane (Chairperson)
Freedom of Religion South Africa

To assist you with your submissions, please see the following links: